The Jessica Bill: Nice Work, AOPA and EAA!

The April 1996 crash in Wyoming that killed 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff along with her father and CFI Joe Reid generated a firestorm in the mass media that threatened to generate a knee-jerk legislative response from Congress. But working quickly both in public and behind-the-scenes, the general aviation alphabet organizations AOPA and EAA did exactly what we members pay them to do. The result: the public furor has died down quickly, and the bill introduced in the house is one we can live with.


The transcontinental lightplane flight of7-year-old Jessica Dubroff was strictly a made-for-TV event fromthe outset. Although billed as an attempt to "set the record"for the youngest pilot ever to make such a flight, there was norecord at stake here. Neither the National Aeronautics Associationnor even the Guiness Book of World Records recognizes such"youngest pilot" feats.

When I first heard about the upcoming flight, I reacted as I imaginemost airmen did…I groaned and muttered, "Oh shoot, notagain!" or words to that effect. It seems like every coupleof years, some prepubescent youngster sets off with his or herCFI on a quest for their 15 minutes of fame and glory. Televisionreporters always seem to go beserk over these stunts, while mostpilots simply sigh at the silliness of it all. When Jessica’sflight was announced, I observed that the reaction on CompuServe’sAVSIG aviation forum was particularly harsh. One wag posted amock announcement that his unborn child would be making a cross-countryrecord attempt, and that a flight by his yet-to-be-conceived childwas under consideration.

But when the heavily-loaded plane stalled and spun in during anunsuccessful low-altitude turn-back attempt just after takeofffrom Cheyenne, Wyoming, in stormy weather, it quickly became nolonger a laughing matter.

Crash fallout

The television networks went into a feeding frenzy over the story,which dominated every TV newscast, morning show, talk show andnewsmagazine for the next four days. The newspapers, wire servicesand talk-radio programs went crazy, too. Jessica’s face even made thecover of TIME magazine, complete with cap, David Clarks, and the rhetoricalheadline "Who Killed Jessica?"

The same reporters whohad been following Jessica’s trek with such obvious enthusiasmnow were demanding to know how it could possibly be legal fora 7-year-old to pilot an airplane. Network TV anchors shoved microphonesin the face of the FAA’s less-than-telegenic Administrator, whomumbled some comments about CFI responsibility and dual controlsand promised he’d look into it.

Even scarier was the predictable reaction on Capitol Hill. Numerouscongressmen and senators capitalized on the photo-ops generatedby the Cheyenne crash coverage by calling for a legislative quick-fix.House aviation subcommittee chairman John Duncan (R-Tenn.) toldthe press that he would introduce a bill "that would notallow children to actually fly airplanes."

FAA Administrator Hinson protested that the current rules "haveserved us very well" and made it clear he was not in favorof such legislation. But when Hinson said he was holding off onan FAA review of the rules until the NTSB completed its investigationof the Cheyenne accident, his bosses at the Department of Transportation"went ballistic" (in the words of Aviation Daily),called Hinson on the carpet, and instructed him to put the reviewback on fast-track status.

Clearly, the media and the politicians were not going to be satisfieduntil a law is passed to ban children from flying.

Keep in mind that all of this sturm und drang was triggeredby a tragic but entirely routine light plane accident that wouldn’thave even made the back page had it not been for all the advancepublicity about the flight. General aviation was getting the kindof exposure it usually gets on television: bad.

GA fights back

In the wake of this negative fallout, the two big general aviationpilot organizations—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Associationand the Experimental Aircraft Association—rose to the occasionand had one of their finest hours in this observer’s recent memory.

AOPA president Phil Boyer, who was a top executive at the ABCtelevision network before changing careers five years ago, appearedon Larry King Live and Good Morning America to counterbalancethe bad press. Very comfortable on-camera (unlike Hinson), Boyercalmly explained that CFI Joe Reid was pilot of the accident flightin every meaningful sense, and that Jessica was simply a passengerwho was permitted to manipulate one set of the airplane’s dualcontrols. On the Larry King show, Boyer even brought alonga hastily-made home video that clearly demonstrated how dual controlswork and made it clear that Reid was always in a position to takefull command of the airplane. (Subsequent autopsy reports corroboratedwhat every pilot already knew: that Reid, not Jessica, was controllingthe aircraft when it crashed.)

Meanwhile, the legislative specialists at AOPA Legislative Actionand EAA went into a full-court press. There was tremendous concernthat the crash would result in a knee-jerk ban against young peopleflying, thereby jeopardizing the many fine programs aimed at introducingyoung people to aviation: the Aviation Explorer Scouts, the CivilAir Patrol, the EAA Young Eagles program, and AOPA’s Project Pilot.

It was becoming obvious that the no-change-is-needed positioninitially adopted by most aviation groups was simply not goingto fly with the public, the press, or the legislators. So thelobbyists at AOPA and EAA went to work to quickly craft a billthat would not throw out the baby with the bath water, and tosell the concept to key congressional leaders.

As a result, on April 18th, precisely one week after the Cheyennecrash, House aviation subcommittee chairman Duncan (who had earlierpromised to ban children from flying) and ranking minority memberWilliam Lipinski (D-Ill.) introduced narrowly-drawn legislationthat would prohibit individuals who do not hold a valid pilotcertificate from manipulating the controls of an aircraft duringany record attempt, aeronautical competition, or aeronauticalfeat as defined by the Administrator. Also signing on as sponsorsof the bill were congressmen Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), Gerry Weller(R-Ill.), William Clinger (R-Pa.), Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa), BillPaxon (R-N.Y.), William Martini (R-N.J.) and James Traficant (D-Ohio).The so-called Duncan-Lipinski bill seems certain to receive broadsupport in both houses of Congress.

A week after the Cheyenne crash, the media frenzy seems largelyto have dissipated—replaced by a preoccupation with the firstanniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing—and the threat of onerousrule changes that would have banned passengers (or at least youthfulones) from touching the controls of an airplane appears to havesubsided. And a lot of the credit belongs to AOPA and EAA, whosurely earned their dues money this week.